By Assunta Ng
When the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO) was planning to perform in China and South Korea in 2016 last year, it didn’t know that a Chinese symphony orchestra, hosted by Dr. Austin Huang, had already booked a concert in its own backyard in Benaroya Hall, here in Seattle on Feb. 25. Not only that, it would have to compete with its own 7th Celebrate Asia (CA) program on March 1 for audience.
Every year, the CA program features music from different Asian countries. A Bellingham engineer and a self-taught music composer, Huang, who brought the Shenzhen Symphony to Seattle, had no idea his show would be so close to the CA’s program. Shenzhen Symphony requested the date and he simply did what it was told. Benaroya Hall was open that day.
So it was booked.
The Shenzhen Symphony was also booked to perform in San Francisco and San Diego afterwards.
Apparently, Benaroya Hall management didn’t communicate with SSO even though SSO is its resident. But Simon Woods, SSO’s president said, even if they knew, there was not much they could do.
So within five days, over 3,000 attendants enjoyed fabulous Chinese and exquisite Asian concerts, all at Benaroya.
It’s a decent record. Both parties achieved their goal. Lovely music for all parties.
How different were the two?
If you asked guests who attended both programs, no one would be willing to speak on the record as many are friends with both groups of organizers.
“They are different,” some would say. Still, there were signs of competitiveness. Both sides invited Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to speak before the program. Both had several event sponsors. Both programs shared similar program designs. Both held receptions for sponsors and guests.
One concert focused on Chinese music, while the other one focused on music from China, Japan, and India.
Both programs took an immense amount of investment. The Shenzhen Symphony delegation has 100 members including 80 musicians and family members. The piano rental fee was $10,000. Just the airfare and hotel accommodation would carry a hefty price tag. And consider—there were also 74 musicians for the CA performance.
There were no voluntary musicians at CA.
The Shenzhen, which ran three and a half hours, focused on popular traditional and modern Chinese music, including the Yellow River Piano Concerto and Butterfly Lovers. Although fatigue was natural for the musicians and the audience too, as the concert was held on a weekday, the music nonetheless, were familiar pieces for a Chinese audience. There was comfort, familiarity, and enjoyment not trying to understand meaning or what would be next.
CA performed a much shorter and demanding program on Sunday, lasting barely two hours, highlighting Yugo Kanno’s Revive (Tohoku Tsunami Disaster Relief, with three parts, Sunrise, Pray and Future); A.R. Rahman’s Slumdog Millionaire; and Tan Dun’s selections from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I couldn’t say enough about Tan Dun, the author orchestrating the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon soundtrack. He is brilliant. While I listened, I correlated the music with the movie I remember–its drama, sword and fist fights, traps set up by the kung fu characters–those memories just came alive..
Conducted by Carolyn Kuan, the inaugural conductor for CA, many in the audience were happy to have her back.
Kuan’s presence instantly inspired confidence in the crowd. SSO only had two rehearsals with Kuan and yet everything flowed so beautifully and magically together. It was so much better than last year. The music was carefully selected this year.
Not that different
Despite what some folks said, I think the Shenzhen and CA of Seattle Symphony program were actually similar. Both the CA and Shenzhen symphonies are all about showcasing talents who are well-known in their native lands, but literally unknowns outside their country. A case in point is Shenzhen pianist, Yin chengzong. He is a prominent musician in China and everyone from China respects him. But it’s the first time I heard of him. And Zhao Cong, the pipa virtuoso, is one of the most popular pipa soloist of the China national Tradition Orchestra. Her performance was so amazing that it enhanced my appreciation about pipa. I wasn’t a pipa fan before.
Another example is CA’s 37-year-old Yugo Kanno, who produces about 300 songs a year for movies, network shows, commercials and games. But I have never heard of him.
He wrote Revive, a symphony to honor Japan’s effort to build after its tsunami especially for the SSO and Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. I was in awe of his first-ever concerto–full of suspense, emotions and color–the richness of East (with koto and shakuhachi) and West instruments intermingling to optimize their effects on the music. When Chiaki Endo played the koto and Dozen Fujiwara with shakuhachi at the end, I was so mesmerized that nothing could stop me from rising and joining others to give them a standing ovation.
Thanks to Yoshi and Naomi Minegishi who supported an open score contest, this year’s winner is Ye Yanchen who wrote Xizi (World Premiere). Ye is only 22 years old. But the maturity is obvious. He took risks and created the most fun interludes during the performance.
Both conductors were trained in the U.S. Shenzhen conductor Jindong Cai joined the Stanford faculty in 2004.
Currently a professor at Stanford University, he was assistant conductor with the Cincinnati Symphony and has taught music at Louisiana State University and the University of California at Berkeley.
Although Kuan was born in Taiwan, her parents were originally from Guangdong, China. She came to the U.S. for high school at the age of 14. Kuan is now music director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. Her conducting experience also includes directing for Butterfly Lovers Concerto.
Both groups’ musicians were also diverse. The Shenzhen group hires musicians outside China, while SSO has several Asian performers in the orchestra.
Both performances showcased some of the best talents in China, and CA has extended its sphere to include Japan with the koto (zither) and shakuhachi (flute-like) instruments.
We Seattleites were lucky to see such superb concerts. The Shenzhen concert even attracted many Chinatown members to go, who have seldom displayed such interest for a concert before. Austin and Nina Huang were gutsy.
Many would back down from bringing the Shenzhen group due to the amount of work and the expenses involved. For friends who know Huang, he would do anything for his love of music. The Huangs deserve a bow from the Chinese community.
My suggestions are to have symphony concerts on different weekends. Make it two hours and not over. And an encore with Carolyn Kuan. We want her back! Don’t try to do everything, just give us something special.
And they were both special. (end)